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From Jimi Hendrix to Stevie Wonder: The 10 best albums recorded at Electric Lady Studios

@TomTaylorFO

In the 1960s, Greenwich Village emerged as the bohemian heart of the counterculture movement. Although Jimi Hendrix had been residing in the old jazz heartland of Harlem in New York, he recognised that ‘The Village’ was the new happening scene for the arts and he commissioned a new state of the art recording studio there named Electric Lady.

The plot had a rich history of art. The abstract expressionist Hans Hofmann had lectured there and The Village Barn Nightclub had welcomed avant-garde thinkers through its door from 1930 to 1967. When it went bust, Hendrix proudly reclaimed the spot for the arts and it has been extolling amazing records riddled with that New York feel ever since. Following financial difficulties during the early 2000s, it is currently relaunching itself as a haven of progressive art once more and has an ever-increasing roster of modern greats coming through its doors once more. 

Below we’re looking at the best albums that have been produced within its fabled walls, from the eponymous Hendrix classic to albums that defined the New York scene. Without further ado, let’s celebrate the very best to come out of her doors. 

The 10 best albums recorded at Electric Lady studios:

10. Sally Can’t Dance by Lou Reed

It is somewhat of an oddity in the annuls of history that Sally Can’t Dance remains Lou Reed’s highest-charting album in the USA having risen to 10th in the Billboard charts. Amid a rapid string of brilliant albums, it stands out as his least ambitious, but the fact it provides catchy rock hits is testimony to his strength as a straightforward songwriter. 

Beneath the slapdash surface is Reed’s bleached blonde punk attitude pushing wannabes and imitators to the curb with swaggering ease. He borrowed from the emerging world of glam rock to add his ever-present keen eye to proceedings and crafted singles like ‘Animal Language’ and the title track to prove that even when he isn’t trying that hard he’s still streets ahead of most. 

9. Blank Generation by Richard Hell and the Voidoids

In 1975, Richard Hell left Television. Fuck ‘em. They were illuminating the future of music, becoming a fixture in the heart of New York’s art scene, and having demos produced by none other than Brian Eno, but what’s the point if they can’t see the merit in Hell penned songs like ‘Blank Generation’. For a man who has lived lying down then what is one more flop to the canvas. 

From that laidback spot in the gutter, Hell soon thrashed out his own tune and Blank Generation perfectly captures the sound. He is a poet who somehow has his head in the sweet clouds and clogs in six feet of stinking subterranean dirt at all times. Alongside this is a swirling and evolving soundscape that rumbles on like a Bayou Tapestry of Punk. How befitting, therefore, that it was honed in the heart of Manhattan.

(Credit: Sire Records)

8. It’s Your World by Gil Scott Heron 

Among many other things, Gil Scott Heron was the man who invented rap. As Charlie Steen, from the band Shame, recently told us: “The words, rhythm and subject matter that Scott-Heron tackles and masters are what causes him to be an unstoppable force, an undoubted poet and a genius.”

Gil Scott-Heron wasn’t just an artist concerning himself with the charts, and his boundary-pushing musical ways are not any desperate clutch for originality, the man was simply uncompromising and proved avant-garde inadvertently as result. As It’s Your World beautifully delineates, he was determined to make a difference to the troubled society of America, and he wasn’t willing to dilute or dumb down any of his ethos in order to do so.

(Credit: Arista Records)

7. Back in Black by AC/DC

Following the tragic loss of Bon Scott, AC/DC decided to conquer their suffering with the balm of creative salvation. They recruited former Geordie singer Brian Johnson and howled right back into action at Electric Lady Studios for an album that has never stopped screeching since. It might not be for everyone, and it wasn’t necessarily a boundary breaker, but there’s a generation of youngsters who have been roused to pick up a guitar thanks to its youthful adrenalised draw. 

The album now exists as a paradigm of ‘classic rock’ with tracks like ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’ and ‘Back in Black’ still continually butchered by uncles at weddings the world over. Kitsch perhaps, but always it never really seemed to care too much for criticism and as such its weekend exultation vibe has sustained.

(Credit: Atlantic)

6. Combat Rock by The Clash

The Promethean force of punk was on the wane by 1982. The Clash’s previous record, Sandinista, had hopped about like a musical jackhammer as they swayed away from the tether of punk into far-flung genres. With Combat Rock, however, they focussed their efforts on honing rather than roving and produced a concise hit-laden record even if there are a few misses to go along with the hits. 

The beauty of the album might linger in the perfect pop-punk singles, but even with these radio-friendly hits the band did not lose sight of their ethos, they simply added a layer of gloss to their political diatribes. This refinement and some excellent production by Glyn Johns resulted in a rousing anthemic selection that continued to ram a message home as it rattled towards the rafters.

5. Chic by Chic

Disco and punk are simply different sides of the same coin and if Combat Rock was an act of refinement, then Chic’s 1977 self-titled effort served up a perfectly seasoned dish without having to trim any fat. With just seven tracks it defined the new sound of the hippest weekend in town. 

As with all of Nile Rodgers work, there is so much musicology to dissect, but as soon as you try to delve into the swirling guizer of the sound he hits you with a playful comedic utterance of “Yowsah, Yowsah, Yowsah” and suddenly you think, ‘why bother?’ Even if you wanted to play the track like Rodgers you never could, he strums with such smiling ease that his style proves inimitable. It is that same unique sense of natural fun that seeps through onto the record and results in music with almost medicinal qualities. 

(Credit: Atlantic)

4. Young Americans by David Bowie

With David Bowie joined in the studio by his usual ace band, plus the additions of Luther Vandross, John Lennon, Robin Clark and a slew of soul’s other session finest, it is no surprise that his self-dubbed plastic soul effort soared like the real thing. It is, without doubt, one of his greatest attributes as an artist that he wasn’t unhinged by his own sense of individualism and was happy to celebrate the artistic vision of others. This daringly allowed him to accept assistance as he tried to push art into new bohemian spheres. Young Americans triumphs as a result. 

He might not have been much of a fan of the title track himself but it’s a playlist crowd-pleasing classic that makes itself at home at any party. The gorgeous descending chord progressions on the likes of ‘Fascination’ bring something new to soul itself and earmarked Bowie as a chameleon unlikely to ever find himself out of place, even with his health and sanity on the slide. And just what about those vocals! 

3. Talking Book by Stevie Wonder

In 1971 Stevie Wonder shrugged off the controlling hand of Motown with Where I’m Coming From, but it was until Talking Book that he truly emerged from its shadow. Feeling the figurative sun of freedom on his back, now, he embarked on his artistic splurge. As he would recall in 2000: “It wasn’t so much that I wanted to say anything except where I wanted to just express various many things that I felt—the political point of view that I have, the social point of view that I have, the passions, emotion and love that I felt, compassion, the fun of love that I felt, the whole thing in the beginning with a joyful love and then the pain of love.”

Talking Book thrives on that exultant ethos. Sometimes an artist’s own summation of their work can come out as hot air caught up in circumstance, but every word of Wonder’s assessment rings true in the sound of the albums that followed. He felt unshackled, and the liberated music, profuse with joy, experimentation and tempered with the simplicity of having fun, colours the records with unbridled creativity. What’s more, absolutely all of it is note-perfect, so much so that you may have thought it had been engineered by AI if it didn’t harness so much humanity. 

(Credit: Tamla)

2. Horses by Patti Smith

Patti Smith was that nurturing hand that punk needed to ensure it escaped the gutter that spawned it. Horses is an album that transcends the punk boundaries of piss, spit and platitudes and relishes in the need for “freedom to create, freedom to be successful, freedom to not be successful, freedom to be who you are.” It was an unshackled rebellion that Patti flooded with the personal, the profound, the playful and everything in between. 

The Godmother of Punk has always been about what happens next in an ever-evolving career, and it is with this finger to the pulse attitude and passion for self-expression that Patti Smith saved rock ‘n’ roll. In short, punk made guitars fun again – Horses was central not only to that but also ensuring it had a crash helmet on to protect its cerebral backbone as it went hurtling into the future. Anyone who ever said poetry was boring ought to listen and weep: “Him and his daddy used to sit inside / And circle the blue fields and grease the night. / It was if someone had spread butter on all the fine points of the stars / ‘Cause when he looked up they started to slip.”

(Credit: Arista)

1. Electric Ladyland by Jimi Hendrix

There are certain songs that just seem fated to enter into existence and the moody jams of ‘Voodoo Chile’ / ‘Voodoo Child (Slight Return)’ are among the best of them. The two variations on a theme bristle with brilliant musicianship and a sauntering bluesy attitude. What’s more, they were almost spawned out of necessity. As Jimi Hendrix’s manager, Chas Chandler explains, “As time went on., they were less and less prepared for the studio. By the time they got to Electric Ladyland they weren’t as prepared, by halfway through Electric Ladyland, numbers that they had worked on had ran out.” 

The reason I focus on the ‘Voodoo’ variations in an album chocked with iconic classics is that the brisk way they bustled into existence is emblematic of a band on top of the world. They had not only conquered the often-unmentioned battle of musicianship, but they also had the connection to alchemically craft their musical wizardry into brilliant pieces of music that disavowed the elitism of virtuosity. Hendrix’s skill on a six-string is just about unrivalled but what truly puts him in a league of his own is that he crafted riffs that nobody else could play but everyone could remember.